Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Carol Gould

Committee Members

Omar Dahbour

Michael Menser

Subject Categories

Ethics and Political Philosophy | Political Theory | Politics and Social Change


Justice, Political Philosophy, Methodology, Social Problems, Causal Explanation, Responsibility


Political philosophy has seen a rise of interest in the topic of injustice, with emphasis placed on the urgency of delineating feasible corrective measures to improve actual societies. This dissertation attempts to advance the overarching conversation on injustice by methodologically clarifying the related yet distinct theoretical projects used to guide practical efforts aimed at positive social change. I argue that how one formulates a remedial plan of action is significantly determined by how one understands the causes of the injustice at issue. The goal of this dissertation is to create a conceptual framework for doing this kind of important work I call etiology of injustice.

Etiologies of injustice are explanatory theories of the operative causation of ongoing social problems. The operative causes of an injustice are those contributing factors, conditions, and processes that, if changed, would result in the cessation of the injustice at issue and prevention of it reemerging in the future. Operative causation is distinguished from generative and precipitating causation. I draw on the philosophy of causal explanation to enrich the notion of operative causation. The creation of etiological accounts of injustices is examined as a process of causal selection, i.e., a process of selecting some enabling conditions as more explanatorily relevant than others through the usage of criteria. Ten causal selection criteria are discussed and evaluated for their applicability in explicating the causes of social problems. This highlights some of the ways in which etiology of injustice constitutes a specific mode of ascription in relation to causal explanation as it has been theorized in the scientific, historical, and judicial contexts. Operativeness is developed as a causal selection criterion synthesizing the criteria of manipulability, irreplaceability, and moral interest.

Etiology of injustice is contextualized as part of eight theoretical steps to addressing injustice: 1) the ought question; 2) identification of injustice; 3) etiology of injustice; 4) consideration of feasibility, strategy, and the morality or legitimacy of means; 5) prescription for action; 6) assignment of responsibility; 7) course correction; and 8) retribution, restitution, reconciliation, healing, and memorialization. The ordering of these steps is not intended to be temporally sequential, but rather to illustrate justificatory relations. The methodological distinctions between etiology of injustice and steps 2, 4, 5, and 6 are most thoroughly explored. It is argued that although the identification of injustice (step 2) involves assuming a standard thin etiology, steps 2 and 3 should be understood as separate theoretical projects. Etiology of injustice is established as discrete from consideration of the constraints of what is feasibly possible and achievable using available resources and means (step 4). Although moral interests and normative evaluations are purposefully used to determine the content of etiological accounts, care is taken to distinguish the formulation of accounts of the causes of injustice from the formulation of accounts of who is responsible for injustice (step 6). Particular attention is paid to forward-looking theories of responsibility. Etiology of injustice is also contextualized in the methodological discussion on the urgency and importance of nonideal political theory. I argue it is preferable that the content of nonideal prescriptions for moving from an unjust point A to a just—or comparatively better—point B (step 5) be informed by etiological understandings of the dynamics of A.

Lastly, the dissertation discusses the major etiologies of injustice that have been theorized to date. It appears thinkers have come up with five basic kinds: 1) extractive etiology, 2) psychological etiology, 3) radically historically contingent etiology, 4) social ontological etiology, and 5) epistemological etiology. These different kinds illustrate salient cleavages in competing approaches to rectifying injustices employed in theory, policy, and activism. This might be used to clarify a basis of disagreement between various activist and political groups who espouse conflicting strategies for solving the same social problems. Pinpointing divergences in etiological foundations may facilitate more productive dialogue and debate.

Possessing an accurate and sophisticated etiological account of the social ill one wishes to remedy is critical for creating an effective plan of remedial action. The overall hope for my project is that it will encourage diverse investigations in etiology of injustice and provide some helpful theoretical scaffolding for doing so.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, June 02, 2025

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